Let Legislators Take a Vacation

Spending time with regular people may prevent a big tax increase

One misconception about legislators and the legislative process is that when high priority issues arise lawmakers should plant themselves in the Capitol and not leave until they've hammered out a solution.

“Darn those politicians,” people say. “Road funding is still unresolved, but rather than tackle it they're taking half the the summer off!”

That's not how it works in the real world though. Big issues like road funding aren't hashed out by 148 state legislators; they’re negotiated by a handful of House and Senate leaders, usually working with the governor’s office. If and when this smaller group devises a potential deal, the full Legislature can be called back to pass or reject it.

The real reasons the mass of lawmakers might stick around the Capitol are less likely to endear them to voters. One would be the desire to create an impression that the entire Legislature is working the problem. The reality is, getting 148 individuals so convened to craft a consensus on something as contentious as raising taxes or reprioritizing current spending makes herding cats look easy.

In most cases, keeping all those people around would be just a show for the media and public. Lawmakers would make themselves look busy for the TV cameras, while the real action involves just a few players and takes place out of sight.

Another reason for keeping 148 representatives and senators hanging around the Capitol would be to pressure them into capitulating to a measure they don't like. On the road funding issue, that translates into "large gas tax hike."

Gov. Rick Snyder and most Lansing insiders seem to see that as the only acceptable solution, so cooping up all 148 legislators in the Capitol would be locking them in a government-centric echo chamber.

The fact that the politicians have been sent home actually bodes well for those who prefer no big tax hike. Lawmakers trying instead to shift some current tax revenues to roads are more likely to stick to their guns after spending time with "real" people as far from the Capitol as possible. The alternative would be the traditional circus-like atmosphere of marathon sessions designed to make them crack, an approach that favors a big tax increase.

The situation might be different if there was a good chance that a true compromise was in the offing. But the guiding principle of the influential Lansing interests is that virtually every government program should be immune from limits on its growth. The community of special interests within a 10-block radius of the Capitol is primed and ready to block any deal that's not a big tax hike.

Road funding aside, complaints that lawmakers aren’t currently in Lansing working on other issues might have some validity, except that it's based on a mistaken perception that all such work happens there. A legislator's job isn't done on a 9-to-5 schedule, or in an office cubicle or on a factory floor.

Arguably, the work legislators do in their districts, going to events, listening to constituents and reacquainting themselves with life back home is at least as important as what happens in Lansing.

If they considered the true nature of the place, most people wouldn't really want the lawmakers who represent them to spend all of their time in Capitol corridors. Perhaps the most common criticism of politicians is that they're out of touch with the people and care too much about the special interests who assemble in those same corridors.

The idea that legislators should be constantly occupied in Lansing, holding hearings, meeting with each other and with lobbyists and passing laws is subtlety akin to the notion that all acts of government are positive. Yet even the most fervant fans of government as a means of addressing problems would acknowledge that's not the case.

The time to feel safe and secure isn’t when the Legislature is in session. Instead, it's only when legislators leave town that the all-clear signal can finally be sounded.